Edgar Allan Poe, June 1849. Daguerreotype "Annie", given to Poe's friend Mrs. Annie L. Richmond; probably taken in June 1849 in Lowell, Massachusetts, photographer unknown.

Edgar Allan Poe: Mystery of Death

True-crime vault? Eerie poet disappearance/death still to be solved

Edgar Allan Poe, widely known for his narrative poem The Raven, and other works, was an American author, editor, poet and literary critic whose unexpected and mysterious death still raises questions, for some.

But are such questions simply the obvious, sensationalist result of the author’s known mystery–persona as it relates to his body of work and, ultimately, his death? Or, is there merit in the idea of mystery based on circumstantial evidence that was apparently otherwise ignored?

On this day, October 3, 1849, one Joseph W. Walker found Edgar Allan Poe “delirious in a gutter in mysterious circumstances”.

After being found and discovered to be incoherent by Walker, and assessed in tandem by Walker and area physician/former news editor Joseph Evans Snodgrass, Poe died four days later at a hospital in Baltimore.

It was Election Day, and Gunner’s Hall served as a pop-up polling location for the 4th Ward polls. When Walker arrived at Gunner’s Hall, he found a man, delirious and dressed in shabby second-hand clothes, lying in the gutter. 

Natasha Geiling, Smithsonian Magazine (2014)

During his time in the hospital at Baltimore (and after his demise), rumors quickly spread about Poe’s manner of death as attributable to any of various diseases (including alcoholism): rabies, murder, and even “cooping“—a kind of electoral fraud known to occur in the United States, in which subjects were kidnapped, saturated with alcohol, disguised, and sent to voting booths—are serious considerations.

Votes were easily manipulated by gangs at the time: voter’s lists and pre-registration in the 1800s were hard to track by hand, and voting wasn’t particularly private. 

Natalie Zarrelli, Atlas Obscura (2016)

In reality, the manner of Poe’s death remains a mystery to this day, continuing to spark the imaginations of problem-solvers who need more answers than they’ve found. Answers—to obvious questions that in today’s crime-busting climate would likely have prompted further investigation before conclusion.

Further, had Poe’s untimely passing from this world occurred in today’s climate of information processing, then it possibly would not have been so quickly written off as . . . expected [of an alcoholic]. Unless, that is, one has accepted garden-variety explanations of alcoholism as evidence enoughwhich over time have remained likely enough for at least a few stamp-and-sealers; since recent, hindsight medical research seems to have corroborated the easy narrative. (Teive, Paola, Munhoz: see Further Reference)

However, such a study only momentarily intersects with questions of Poe’s tragic end, and does so well after the event. Modern researchers weren’t involved in investigations of the time and cannot but speculate as to whether conditions of alcoholism caused Poe’s death. Furthermore, opinions of Poe’s contemporaries have been shown to be fueled by ‘knowledge’ bias, and possibly greed. (It is said that Snodgrass was an advocate of the temperance movement and could have used Poe’s assumed state as fuel for his political goals.)

Despite the mysterious nature of Poe’s death, most people of his time (with significant help from Poe’s industry peers and otherwise personally-interested yet uninvolved parties) latched onto and spread rumors of Poe’s supposed accidental but self-inflicted demise: due, simply enough, to effects of alcoholism.

Poe’s Mysterious End

Far more interesting are historians’ questions pertaining to unexplained details, such as Poe having been clothed in unfamiliar, cheap clothes when found and rumors of possible interference by would-be brothers-in-law (just one of several alternative theories of death).

Clothing that Poe wore at time of discovery was said to have been substituted for his usual garb. This suspicious detail isn’t reliably explained by imbibement of alcohol or drugs, as oft’ presumed, nor is the extended time of Poe’s 5-day disappearance beforehand. Also, Poe’s repeated exclamations of “Reynolds” upon being found were never explained.

Poe had initially embarked on journey for business purposes—to edit a poetry manuscript—and never arrived at his destination.

Whether you’re of the school of unsolved mystery or the stamped and sealed reputation conclusion, what has been your understanding of the death of Edgar Allan Poe? Did you know that mystery surrounded his demise?


Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe

A compilation of events leading up to discovery of a disheveled Poe, including reference to Poe’s departure from Richmond to work with fellow poet Marguerite St. Leon Loud—to which he never arrived to edit her collection of poems—and his final, misguided, ultimately lost trip to Philadelphia.

Leland, Levi L., A Gentleman “Rather the Worse for Wear” in Baltimore, Edgar Allan Poe: Rhode Island – The History Of Poe In Providence

An article which includes quoted excerpt of details recounted by Joseph Evans Snodgrass, the man Poe requested when prompted for information by Joseph Walker, then man who found Poe. Includes information said to be given by attending physician in Baltimore as to Poe’s state of awareness.

Teive, Paola, Munhoz, National Library of Medicine, Edgar Allan Poe and neurology, archives of neuro-psychiatry

Abstract states “Poe suffered from recurrent depression, suggesting a bipolar disorder, as well as alcohol and drug abuse, which in fact led to his death from complications related to alcoholism. Various hypotheses were put forward, including Wernicke’s encephalopathy.”

Wikipedia contributors, Edgar Allan Poe, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.


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